Dharavi Tamil Community: Interview with Agent Sukumaran
Director: Richa Hushing
Duration: 00:17:18; Aspect Ratio: 1.778:1; Hue: 86.960; Saturation: 0.018; Lightness: 0.212; Volume: 0.141; Cuts per Minute: 0.173; Words per Minute: 146.666
Summary: Dharavi is popularly termed as the largest slum in Asia. Known to be one of the densest and most layered human settlements in the world, the origin of Dharavi can be traced back to early 20th Century, at the height of the industrialization in the region. Dharavi is an area, which was originally located at the northern periphery of Bombay, but with boundaries of this ever-growing city constantly extending on all sides it has come to occupy prime location today. Today, according to official records, Dharavi is marked as an area spread over 223 hectares, where as many as 18,000 people crowd into a single acre. A 1986 survey by the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF) counted 530,225 people (106,045 households) living in 80,518 structures. But considering the large number of ‘unofficial/illegal’ migration influx, the real number of people living in Dharavi is likely to be much more. Home to approximately one million people, Dharavi populace includes diverse language groups, religious communities and economic units. Most of Dharavi’s old residents are from interior Maharashtra, Kutch and Kathiawad region in Gujarat and from Kanyakumari, Thirunelveli, Thuthukudi and Nellai districts in Tamil Nadu. Currently, Dharavi is in the eye of a storm as the prime land that it occupies needs to be ‘re-developed’ to keep in pace with the economic globalization that is sweeping the city. Following a proposal (valued at Rs. 93 billion -around USD 2.3 billion) by architect Mukesh Mehta, the Govt. has divided Dharavi in five sectors and announced call for tenders to develop each sector from international builders’ agencies. The scheme is that profits from the sale of the high-end developments will fund the resettlement of eligible slum dwellers (those who can prove their residence prior to January 1, 1995 which now has been extended to the year 2000) in free 225 sq. ft. (which now has been increased to 269 sq. ft.) flats in multi-story buildings. The whole process is stalled at the moment while some organizations are commissioned to conduct some field research on the existing socio-economic structure of Dharavi. Another reason for the ‘go slow’ policy of the Govt. could be due to impending general election. Most probably the Govt. and specially the ruling party do not want to risk public controversy at this stage.
The following is an interview with a Tamil Resident of Dharavi, Mr. Sukumaran, a man of public life, a consultant, and father of three. Sukumaran is born to a migrant family and brought up in Dharavi. He is candid about his earlier brush with the world of crime and his current profession of negotiation with the power lobbies. He was not easily agreeable to the interview andour crew had to hang around for an entire day before before getting an access to him. He runs a Consultancy called Tension – Free Consultancy from a 5 by 5 feet room adjoining his home in Dharavi.
A: My name is Sukumaran. I am from Tamil nadu, Tirunelveli district, from a village called Poolangulam near Alangulam. That's my origin. Since my parents were in Bombay, from childhood I studied and grew up here in Bombay. Right now at present, I am a consultant with Tension-free Consultancy. Man… when born as human beings, from our birth, our entire lives are caught up with some problem or other. When they are unable to find a way out of their problems they continue to suffer. I work with this organization that helps people find a way and get out of their problems and helps them like a guide.
Q: How did you get this idea of this Tension-free Consultancy?
A: Tension-free Consultancy… that is...how do I say it… when I was 19 years old, I joined with some friends of mine (pause for a few seconds) what's that you say…. underworld…they were with the underworld… they came here to Bombay, saying they were going abroad. But they didn't... Saying they were going abroad, they came and stayed with me. They had a lot of contacts with the underworld. At that time the new law TADA had come to India. At that time they had shot a police officer and had come and stayed here with me. Since I had given them shelter, for that one reason, I was also put in that TADA case and I was in jail for 7 and a half years. From the age of 19 years. I was kept and moved around in all the jails in Maharashtra. At that time I had just finished Plus 2 (class 12); then inside the jail I finished B.A. and inside only I finished LLB (law degree) too. Q: You completed it?
A: Yes. Then in Bombay… at Maharashtra level I was the first person who got compensation against the government.
Q: In this case you got the compensation? (unclear)
A: Yes. Then as far as TADA was concerned, there are only 4 or 5 of us who are alive now. In that, I am one; then this one - who is the MLA, Arun Gawli. They were all at that time… those who were inside. Otherwise, all others they finished off in encounters. When I was inside… before going inside I was the Treasurer of the Bombay Tamil Writers Sangam. I was an organizer in many organizations. When I was inside, my mental state didn't agree with the situation inside, and seeing the state of affairs there, I felt one must do something to help people. With that in mind, after coming out, I thought of starting this Tension-free Consultancy.
This interview is taken in the outer section of Sukumaran's one room tenement, which he calls his office. In the small place Sukumaran lives with his wife and three grown up children. He is an enigmatic character. His job can be broadly understood as that of a broker or agent who negotiates various deals on behalf of the less facilitated people of Dharavi. But he chooses to call himself a social worker. His brush with the world of crime is painted by him as a case mistaken identity. The Tamil community of Dharavi in the '70s was a notorious lot. Their tanneries; related grey areas such as illegal poaching and unregulated leather export; running of illegal country liquor breweries etc. had earned them a dreaded reputation. Many of the local dons of that time were from the Tamil community of Dharavi. Many Bollywood flicks of that time has exploited the theme of Tamil dons. Sukumaran obviously is a person of good facility and will power for him to acquire higher education while in jail on TADA. TADA stands for the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act of 1987 – "the act was the first and only legislative effort by the Union government of India to define and counter terrorist activities. It was formulated in the back drop of growing terrorist violence in Punjab which had its violent effects in other parts of the country too, including capital New Delhi." The Act was allowed to lapse in 1995 due to increasing unpopularity due to widespread allegations of abuse. (to know more please check link http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/india/document/actandordinances/Tada.htm
bombay writers tamil sangam
terrorist and disruptive activities
By Sukumaran's own testimony he is a person of hign level connection and capable of sorting out things at the level of ministers in Delhi. It does feel strange that such a person resides in a hole in Dharavi. Could the claim be hugely exaggerated or the home is a front to cover something else. Or is it that for his profession it is important to live in the ghetto.
Dharavi is known to be the largest slum in Asia. As it is a settlement of poor migrants where mostly people survive on non-mainstream livelihood practices, it is known to be a den of criminals. It is natural that the people often need a third party negotiator functioning beyond the state organs. Sukumaran obviously play that role.
As the land price in Bombay is a killer, the tenancy related violence and crime are also very high, specially in places like Dharavi. With various development schemes (to release more commercial land out of Dharavi) being in the air, the land and occupancy related crimes are likely to increase in next few years. And so will be the significance of people like Sukumaran. .
Q: At what age did you start this?
A: Now this… I was inside for 7 years, from when I was 19. So 19 plus 7… at about 26, 27 years I came out. From around 28 years I have been doing this continuously. That is from '98-'99 I have been doing it.
Q: so it is 10 years. What sort of cases do you handle?
A: As far as Dharavi is concerned, crimes against women are a lot. Then conflict arising out of giving-taking, then breach of trust, such cases are there; unsolvable disputes; some who take money and refuse to return; others who take houses and refuse to give it up. Then domestic disputes. These disputes… generally it is the ego which is responsible for the lack of resolution of the problem. So we call the two people, talk to them separately. And deal with the issue in a way that doesn't affect both of them too much. Another thing is that… well, it does affect one person among the two. It favours one, and affects the other. In such a situation, we arrange in such a way that it does not affect too much. For that, the fees I charge depending on the persons. But most important, I don't take money from a lot of people. I treat it as such and do it. If they are big (moneyed) people who can pay, then from them I take and manage.
Q: Do you take cases only from Dharavi or outside too?
A: No, from all over Bombay, and if possible, from all over India too, I handle cases. Meaning, many people want transfer here, put children in schools, contact Ministers in Delhi, and then if we can catch someone who will do the work then I go myself and get it done.
Q: You go out of town and get it done
A: Yes, I go out of town and do it.
Q: Out of court settlements or through courts too?
A: Through courts too we do. Yes through courts also we seek settlements, by arguing cases. But most of it is out of courts, because if we go to the courts, its expensive, time is spent.
Q: Do you argue out the cases yourself?
A: Yes, some of the cases I argue. Others we get seniors to do it.
Q: So you are a registered advocate?
Q: In the High Court or…?
A: In the High Court.
Q: So you are a practicing lawyer?
slum rehabilitation authority
A: Slum Rehabilitation … so for the people in the huts in Dharavi, giving alternative housing. It is a good government scheme… but those in the Society… those in the Administration… in the management committee, then builders, and others in the mafia gangs, all together have tried to destroy this scheme. That is making it seem like those who don't have, have; and those who have, don't have. Now they have started a Dharavi Re-Development Project, DRP. In that, for all the people they have made it sector-wise…they have divided Dharavi into 5 sectors, and for all the people they are thinking of building in a very hygienic manner. In that all the politicians here are telling people that we will give you 400 square feet, we will give you this, and give you that, and they are misguiding people. Right now, if you see, the people are living in 10 by 10 (feet)houses, some are even living in 5 by 5 (feet) houses, where you cannot properly enter, or stretch your legs even and lie down. For them the government is building houses of 225 sq ft., but that is not enough. As far as I am concerned, they should be given 300-350 square feet. It's good if they are given that. Right now they are giving 260, 270 square feet. So the government has said. Without finding out the right way, the politicians are misguiding the people and dividing them for votes, thereby destroying a scheme itself.
Q: Regarding that, what are you doing?
A: In Dharavi, 15, 13 societies have come under the Dharavi SRA (Slum Rehabilitation Authority). Several of those societies come to me only for advice. I help them by addressing their complaints.
Q: What exactly do you do in that?
A: Exactly, there is an Annexure 2, which is the Authorised Notification of Persons who are Staying in the Places. In that what they do is, show those who don't live there as living there, and show those who live there as not living there. They do that…
Q: So you…
A: Yes, we note who is living where, and take photos of those who live there, and take it to show, help give complaints. Through RTI, Right of Information, we collect information and make it public… For, example in Dharavi, the builder has got no LOI, IOD, CC (Commencement Certificate). Without getting any of these, they have built 7 storey buildings. By cheating the people, the builder has made a lot of money through sale of sale wings and escaped. Even now, for nearly 10 years people are living in the same building without water, electricity or toilet facilities, as in transit stay. Nothing has happened even upon complaining to various authorities. Many have got news, media etc. taken pictures and gone to the builder and got settlements and moved on. Finally last week, the SRA (slum rehabilitation authority) has issued an order saying that building should be demolished…that type of work. Then in the society at present, signatures have been submitted of those who are alive, not alive, and not present in the place… that is bogus signatures that so many people are there. Because the essence of the scheme is that they get FSI (floor space index) of 1 sq. feet equal to 4 sq. feet., who gets? the builders. If they build and give one square feet of house space, they get a benefit of 4 square feet. So if there are 10 people they don't get any benefit, so they show as though there are 50 people, creating non-existent 40 people. So showing those 50 people's names they get for the 40 people, 40 times 4, that is 160 people's worth space, the builder gets. That the builder, the SRA officers, not all officers, there are some corrupt officers, then the society, all of them make portions and share it among them. For this they do this sort of thing. If we complain against this, we don't get the appropriate… uh… thing… But if we continually keep doing it, then we will get victory. Till that time nobody has patience. Sometimes they threaten some people. Some may not have that much courage. It goes on like this.
This is the complex real estate story of Bombay. Developing and rehabilitating the slums have long been the most notorious activity in the city. Many a times the builders sponsor an unauthorized slum to come up in an area, in order to eventually get a contract to rehabilitate them in high rise buildings. FSI – floor space index is the centre of all greed and criminal acts. By giving free rehabilitation of slum dwellers in the new buildings the builders get 4 times of that space to sell in the market. Hence there is a stampede to make / discover newer slums and then rehabilitate them. Thus the city always remains 'under construction'. Slum rehabilitation authority (SRA), a body under the urban planning department in the government was constituted in 1995. This body has special power and can even supersede BMC (Bombay municipal corporation). This body has been building multi-storied apartments in Dharavi through independent contractors. Infact many erstwhile Tamil tannery owners in Dharavi have turned into builders under SRA. . Previous SRA buildings in Mumbai is already showing disastrous result. Under this scheme high rise buildings are to house the dwellers of demolished slums. But often the slum dwellers cannot pay for the maintenance of the buildings. So gradually basic amenities such as electricity, water and lift stop functioning. People attempt to re-start their earlier vocations. So 'illegal' sweat shops of leather works, embroidery, sewing, carpentry etc. start in the small multi-storied dwellings without the basic amenities. Soon the vertical buildings turn into something worse than the horizontal slums. Only that this time it remains concealed within the building structures and does not become visible in general public place. Other than concealing the issue from public eyes this scheme of rehabilitating the slum dwellers achieve very little. But on the other hand it releases vast amount of land for the real estate lobby.
A special body DRP (Dharavi redevelopment project) has been constituted and assigned to implement the Dharavi redevolpment scheme. Under this scheme the development will take place simultaneously for the entire area instead of piecemeal approach of one building at a time under SRA scheme. The entire 223 hecters of Dharavi are divided into five sectors and bidding from international construction agencies are invited.
(For more info please see event Dharavi: Redevelopment for a Tamil Working Class Man)
This interview was conducted in 2008, a year before the Elections in 2009– a time when false political promises are at its peak. The Dharavi resident, whose vote is the most important one, whose 10 by 10 feet tenament is the land with the most potential, whose exploitation is the most profitable of its kind, will still continue to be at the lowest rank - the victim of this vicious game.
dharavi re-development project
right of information
slum rehabilitation authority
Q: How are the young people these days, in Dharavi?
A: The young people these days are all ruined. Not just in Dharavi, but specifically in Dharavi they are really ruined. About their goal, aim… it's aimless life… at that level they have made their life…
Q: Why do you think it has happened?
A: It's their standard of living that's the reason. (Interruption – a little child keeps whispering into his ear) Youngsters… they remain direction-less. From about 12-15 years their life takes a different turn. Films are also a reason for this. They see cinema and imitate the heroes, their antics. Then the surroundings, circumstances here… that is, if you don't feel satisfied with self, then there is always a feeling of irritation in life. When you can't stretch your legs and sleep; you can't go to the toilet properly in the morning, you don't get proper water. All the time you have to fight, to get things, you have to keep doing something all the time, when life is like that… there is no satisfaction. In jails you can experience this; meaning, in jail there are those who live royally and there are those who live like rag-pickers. Those who live the royal life don't get angry at all, but those who don't get anything, who have to struggle in everyday life, they get angry and resentful all the time. They don't have any facilities in their houses. Since they don't get the facilities they imagine, they think in life, if one takes the narrow/ crooked path they can do a lot… its an illusion… an illusion.
Q: Doesn't it seem like a problem to them, what do you say?
A: To see it as a problem… I think their parents are fully responsible for that.
Q: In Tension-free Consultancy, don't you have any ideas?
A: Ideas… we can't give any ideas for that. They don't take us seriously because about changing, advising… nobody likes it. For example, all great thinkers, intellectuals have been stoned to death, crucified on a cross, or crowned by a crown of thorns. So those who speak of change, even scientists have been stoned to death, nobody accepts them. If we go to advise they would only think us to be mad. If we go to anyone and say don't drink tea or coffee, or don't smoke cigarette/ beedi, they would look at us as though we were lunatics. They remain in their circumstances, drink liquor and so it is. Bombay's level of life is itself like that because for every ten shops, there is a beer bar. For every ten shops… one shop is a wine shop, it's like that for them. And so drinking and smoking are seen as gentleman's behaviour. Their lifestyle is like that. The reason for that is that in their families their parents are also like that. In 70 per cent of the families, in their homes there are alcoholics. Fathers and mothers drink, father asks the children to buy cigarettes, buy liquor. If you take these surroundings, only in this chawl nobody smokes cigarettes, nobody drinks liquor. I live in such a chawl…that is my … thing. If you go a little to the other side, you don't get anybody like this. Mostly their lives are like that…If they have to be changed, it can only happen from the home. But there are no opportunities for that at home, as they go to work in the morning, return only in the evening. Children don't listen to their mothers. If you report them, then there will be fights. And so life goes on.
Sukumaran goes into a philosophical tangent here as he talks about life in Dharavi – why the youngsters are ruined and why everyone is dissatisfied. Is he just a conservative man? Or has his background in jail made him ascetic? His family of wife and three children are at the receiving end of his morality crusade. His college growing daughter Ila talks about this with silent resentment. (To know more about Ila please see the event: 'Dharavi Tamil Community: Ila on Growing up in a Ghetto' on this site)
standard of living
Q: How do you think the future will be? What's your ideal Dharavi?
A: There are chances of it developing in future and becoming a classic place.
Q: what are your dreams?
A:Because… since the living area is inadequate…it's as though cattle have been put in a pen, and so it is lacking in discipline. The same thing… if there are buildings all around, then crime would reduce tremendously; identification would be very easy. Now in one place if there is a criminal it is difficult to locate that person. If you go and see it now, there is a huge slum pocket. If you go there, you would not know yourself which chawl you entered or where you are going or how to get out. Even those who live there don't know it. That is the most difficult reason. Once their standard of living improves then Dharavi's status would go high, amazingly/ incredibly so. The efforts for that are being taken by this government. I wish them all success for that.
Q: But what is your dream? That people will be like this or…
A: If people go along that level of life then there are chances of betterment. Then by observing other people and trying to be like them… because these people remain in this area only. They never have gone outside of this area. Some have not even gone outside of their street, some not even outside their homes. It's only to go to the toilet that they take the dabba (bucket) and go out. Apart from their house they have nothing. They watch the TV, that's all their life is. They have never left their homes and gone out, because the people in Dharavi feel they must earn money, save it; they live with that mentality.
Q: Are all like this, men, women?
A: Yes, everyone. Generally all of them are like this. Men when they go out… another thing… incomes are a reason. We, weekly… during Sundays when we go out, about 500 to 1000 rupees are spent. It's because we have an income we can afford that. For some, when the income is only 2000/- or 3000/-, it's difficult for them. When standard of living improves, that dream Dharavi can be realized.
Q: Your only business is Tension-free Consultancy?
Sukumaran too believes that gentrification is the only way to improve the situation in Dharavi. He also believes that planned constructions will make the settlement linear and surveillance will become easier and thus the criminality will reduce. Most of the Tamil residents in Dharavi supports the redevelopment scheme, unlike people in Koliwada and Kumbharwada.